Theres a tendency in political circles around Florida to assume the Republican primary battle to replace Bill Young in Congress comes down to David Jolly and Kathleen Peters. But Mark Bircher, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general making his political debut, should not be counted out.
This week, St. Pete Polls took a poll for Saint PetersBlog which shows Jolly ahead by a whisker with a 28 percent to 27 percent lead over Peters. But Bircher, who is less known than either of those two candidates, is in the mix with 17 percent. Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate, holds a solid lead over all three Republicans, beating Jolly and Peters by 13 percent apiece and leading Bircher by 20 percent.
Its a jump ball on the Republican side with all the candidates, including Bircher, having a shot at the nomination. Birchers an underdog, to be sure, but there is a path to victory for him over his Republican rivals. Turnout should be low in the Jan. 11 primary, especially with Pinellas County Republicans rightfully being more focused on the holidays than the election. With that being the case, Bircher has some advantages over his two rivals.
Birchers a political outsider while Jolly and Peters have traditional political backgrounds. Jolly was an aide to Young and worked as a lobbyist. Before winning a Florida House seat in 2012, Peters served on the City Commission and as mayor of South Pasadena.
While he studied at Stetson Law, Birchers background is less political, including his service in the Marines. This has been a help to candidates in Republican primaries in recent years. While everyones down on him now after being busted for cocaine, Trey Radel beat out a crowd of officeholders to win a congressional primary last year. So did another outsider, Ron DeSantis. Veterinarian Ted Yoho beat out three politicians, including a sitting congressman in Cliff Stearns, in a Republican primary contest. Being the outsider works in Republican primaries and that works in Birchers favor.
So does rallying conservatives. With the likes of Jack Latvala in her corner, Peters isnt exactly a favorite of conservatives. Jolly is probably more palatable to conservatives and tea party voters but there is room to run to the lobbyists right. Bircher has to do that while assuring conservatives that supporting him wont lead to Peters winning. Bircher also has to counter the impression that Alex Sink would easily defeat him in the general election in March.
Its a tough assignment, certainly, but Bircher has a chance of winning the primary. At the very least, this should be seen, for the moment, as a three-candidate contest instead of a fight between just Jolly and Peters.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.